It was a season of absolute exhaustion. I was exhausted from the demands of caring for our three year-old son Fischer, who becomes anxiously allergic to tree and grass pollens during the winter and spring months in this very dry California climate. My job as a mother was to hold him for hours and hours a day as he screamed and cried from the itchy hives and welts, in order to prevent him from scratching his skin to a bloody mess, which remained on the brink of infection with the open sores. We finally broke the bank with allergists, steroid creams, natural remedies and an air-conditioning bill to keep him inside the house, and to get it all under control. I cooked him every single meal from scratch, in order to detox his body from foods that cause inflammation and intensify the allergic reactions. As I sought out these forms of control on Fischer’s behalf, I myself, 6 months pregnant, couldn’t gain a sense of control over my own body and mind in the most mentally tumultuous pregnancy I had experienced. I was dealing with frequent and panic-inducing insomnia, new forms of anxiety, and severe muscle cramps from the pregnancy. All I wanted was rest—and rest I could not find. I was acutely aware of the rest that my body needed as I was approaching the season of childbirth and life with a newborn baby. But insomnia is a monster. It had completely left me broken, defeated and crazy. How could we be so stupid and irresponsible to bring yet another little baby into this anxious and fragmented society?
Fischer’s health problems and my own physical and mental turmoil made for a very dark Lenten season of 2014. I don’t believe there is any magic to the liturgical church calendar, but Lent, this time around, buried me in my pain and self-pity. The only prayer I managed to force from my lips was a scream during a long car ride when I looked in the back seat and both kids were crying because Fischer was scratching open his wounds, blood spilling out. As I grew more and more aware of how depleted I was, I began to think that maybe my community could come to my aid and be my coping mechanism for the wild day-to-day anxiety I was feeling.
So, I wrote a letter and sent it out to about 40 of my closest friends and family. The majority of these recipients were members of Mountainside Communion Church. In this letter I expressed boldly what the preceding six months had been like for me and I asked of my friends in return, to bring to me, symbols for prayer—deeply meaningful items, words, or images that represented parts of their own experience in sacred Comfort.
Over the next two months I began to receive from this community, these symbols of prayer. They represented pain and joy, lament and praise. They were reminders of our collective endurance and life-giving memories . These prayers of our people would carry me into the chaos and vulnerability of childbirth. My original thought was that they would serve as a source of comfort as my due date approached and as I would have to endure long hours and days of physical pain. But instead, little by little, week by week, these symbols showed up at my door in the loving hands of the people they inspired, and I was slowly and surely entering into the peace of both mind and body that could only be attributed to the Source of our love for each other, our gracious God.
The suffering didn’t go away. In fact, my sleep patterns didn’t change, Fischer still had the hives (coupled with an emergency appendectomy two weeks before my due date), and I certainly did not find any rest. But I can confidently say that my mind was slowly undergoing transformation.
And then there was something else… something I wasn’t looking for or expecting. There was immediacy to the release of anxiety, and it happened during holy week. To my surprise, this freedom would be found as I sat down with friends to honor something that we as Christians rarely honor, the Passover story.
Our Vocation Group gathered on the Wednesday evening of holy week. As the sun was setting, our kids were quietly settled into their sleep. Our dining area was lit by candles at the center of the table. The wine had been poured. The meal was prepared. Friends were gathering. The liturgy was being passed out around the table. I sat down as a very pregnant and exhausted skeptic, even though I was the one hosting this thing.
I had managed to avoid Seder dinners throughout my Christian life. I had always associated a Seder meal with the more fringy evangelicals that work extra hard that time of year to get people to be more on fire for God. This five-day time frame of “mourning” the death of our God and then quickly regrouping emotionally to be really really excited to celebrate the resurrection—had always been my time to withdraw. Holy week is by far the most bipolar week in the Christian calendar. Because that time of year always felt too crowded with Christian stuff to be doing, a Seder dinner almost seemed laughable to me.
But this year, since the Vocation Group was already scheduled to gather for a meal during holy week, I thought, heck—the meal prep is actually easier than most meals I prepare. Parsley, a giant cracker, four glasses of wine—Oh My! In my exhaustion, Seder dinner would serve me as a selfish expression of hospitality—it would be so easy! The entire meal would be scripted! And what could be a better topic of conversation for vocation than slavery, plagues, and the liberation of God’s people? In true fashion of Mountainside Communion, we would tackle the seedy Exodus narrative together, and enjoy our wine while we did it.
Alexandria, Danielle, Brendon, Emily, Kaitlin, Kurt and I passed religious symbols around the table, read the liturgy, drank the wine, consumed the holy foods, talked and laughed and gave disclaimers about our awkwardness in such things. Being an expectant mother and all, I decided to only partake in 1 of the 4 glasses of wine. In my sobriety I became particularly focused on what was happening in the liturgy. To sum it up, the movement in the liturgy gathers people together to observe and remember Passover, the deliverance of God’s people. We speak of God delivering Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Then it is pieced together by different segments of the biblical narrative, centering on God commanding his people to observe this holiday. Not to be celebrated in vain, but with thanksgiving to God—the focus is in remembering the Exodus event, which points to God’s final act of deliverance through the death of the foretold Messiah, Jesus. It is by Jesus’ death and resurrection that we too will be passed over from death and be given life.
As the drama unfolded in the Exodus liturgy that night, there were lines recited that reveal the worst suffering of the people of God. As outsiders we can only laugh a little,
- Wild Beasts!
- Disease to Livestock!
- Death of the Firstborn!
It almost seemed as if it were too much for us at the table—the exclamations, the theatrics, the awkwardness. Maybe that’s why four glasses of wine are to be consumed? As we acknowledged that we felt like outsiders reading the story of another time, another place and another people, I myself got sick in my heart. Something triggered repentance in me at that moment. And because we give ourselves permission to speak out and ask questions around our table, I interrupted the liturgy and cried out, “Why do I think my life is that hard?” And there was silence. I continued, “No, really—I am speaking to myself here… my life isn’t that hard!” I have never known slavery. I have never known the death of my precious babies. I have never known wicked oppression against me. My three-year-old has itchy skin and I can’t sleep at night. But is my life really that hard? Suddenly my self-pity was swallowed up by the imagination of slavery in Egypt. Suddenly, I felt like I was set free from the consuming thoughts of exhausted complaint. It was suddenly that I felt a very Holy God whispering to me in the form of this Exodus narrative—Sonia, My people don’t chase comforts. It is I who deliver. And some humorous clarity invaded my mind—Sonia, your life isn’t that hard, and you are not that special.
We kept reading, eating and drinking together. As the liturgy concluded, my joyful but teary eyes were tired from the candlelight. The blessing that follows the meal ends with the question, How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? And the reader declares: I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people (Psalm 116:12-14).
The Easter peace and freedom I felt that week has carried me to this day. I believe that my mind needed the great remembrance—this recollection of the story that does not merely place me as an outsider, but the story that I get to participate in by the continuous movement of our gracious God who brings His people from barrenness to new life. I can’t muster up the strength to live into this story all on my own. But instead, I am given a place at the very crowded table of God, which hosts those who gather to remember the broken body and the shed blood of Christ our Lord, who gives us life. This, people of Mountainside Communion, is Eucharistic life.
And I am ever so grateful.